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Is Lathrop incorporation, Mantecas annexations killing Lathrop Manteca Fire?
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LATHROP – Did the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District miss the money boat when the City of Lathrop was incorporated 20 years ago?

Fire board chairman and two-term Lathrop mayor Bennie Gatto thinks so.

“The city got off real lightly when we incorporated because LAFCo said Lathrop-Manteca Fire District will be the sole proprietor for the city but without funding; we still relied on property tax,” Gatto said earlier this week.

LAFCo is the San Joaquin County Local Agency Formation Commission which makes sure that cities’ growths via annexations are smoothly done and not in a leap-frog manner leaving patches of unincorporated islands in neighborhoods.

The fire district’s financial dire strait is what prompted this financial exhumation by the longtime Lathrop politician, civic leader, and longtime fire volunteer who also currently chairs the city Planning Commission.

Gatto resurrected the issue again at the fire district’s budget session Thursday night when he, as the board chairman, and the four other directors grimly pored over the new proposed budget for 2009-10 in a vain effort to find ways to cut the nearly $1 million budget shortfall. What the board saw was a budget that was already so whittled down to the bone that board director Gloryanna Rhodes was prompted to comment with stark irony while holding up a copy of the preliminary budget prepared by Interim Fire Chief Fred Manding: “Don’t ask me to cut this (budget) because I won’t be able to perform miracles. There’s nothing to cut.”

“We’re sitting here pulling our hair out, whatever is left. We should have been more diligent, but we can’t go back now,” Gatto himself admitted about the financial oversight committed during the city’s incorporation.

“Nobody looked that far down the line” when the incorporation of Lathrop was being processed, he said.

When the city incorporation was finalized, Lathrop-Manteca Fire gained some of the areas west of the freeway which were detached from the Tracy Rural Fire District. More geographical areas came under its jurisdiction with the subsequent annexations of the River Islands development area, then known as Gold Rush, and the Central Lathrop Specific Plan Area where Richland Communities was going to be the master developer but has since “tanked,” as Gatto described it in Thursday’s board meeting.

Overtime eliminated, down by eight personnel and still short of funds
The new budget prepared by Interim Fire Chief Fred Manding showed that even with the elimination of staff overtime which ate up a significant portion of the budget, plus being down eight personnel staff, the district is still in the hole by about a million dollars due to the big hit in property taxes, where the district derives its general fund, resulting from the still ongoing mortgage meltdown that is draining property tax incomes of cities like Lathrop and special districts such as the fire district. And the worst is still to come, warned Rhodes, with “larger foreclosures coming (that are) worse than before” and creating “catastrophic impacts” in terms of the economy.

Last year alone, Manding said, the district had five retirements (fire chief, division chief, and three fire captains) with only the fire captains filled through in-house promotions. Three firefighter/engineer positions also remain unfilled. The district also does not have a fire marshal with Manding wearing that extra hat.

“With an expected drop in tax revenues in December of last year, I made the decision to stop all overtime except for authorized vacations,” Manding told the board.

At the same time, he added, “Keep in mind, our call volume has gone up every year. Last year, we ran close to 2,900 alarms. In the City of Lathrop, we are experiencing higher call volume and, at times, we have two and three calls at once.”

Manding said the “severe drop in plan check and fire facility fees” is the lowest it has been since the district was formed in 1936.

At the Lathrop City Council meeting on Tuesday, Gatto made a plea to the council to consider providing financial assistance to the district.

“You, folks, are hurting just as we are. But we only rely on property taxes; beyond that, we get nothing so I’m making a plea to you,” Gatto said to the council members sans Mayor Kristy Sayles who was absent.

Rhodes described Gatto’s speech before the council as “very powerful.

“Bennie planted a seed the other night” in the city’s collective mind, Rhodes said.

Gatto said that in addition to the loss in property taxes, the fire district has been hurt through the years “every time Manteca annexes (land),and we lose that (tax income).”

The last annexation, which involved the Manteca Unified School District and the unincorporated properties around it along Louise Avenue and Airport Way, cost the district about $5,000 in lost tax revenues, he said.

“That doesn’t sound much, but over the years the annexations that have taken place probably add up to the hundreds of thousands,” he explained.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, we lost a good deal of money,” he reiterated at the fire board meeting Thursday night.

Other ideas that were floated at the board meeting Thursday night were a possible round of talks about merging with other neighboring fire districts, and the establishment of a Lathrop City Fire Department which Rhodes favors.

 “At this point, I’m willing to look at this 100 percent to see if it’s a viable option,”  she said about a city fire department.

But some critical questions need to be answered first, she said. For example: “Does it make sense to have a city fire department? Is it a good business deal?”

“We all got to put our fingers in and stir the pot,” Bennie Gatto said in reply, referring to all five fire board directors pressing the city to come to the aid of the fire district.